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IBARW and History

19 July, 2006

IBARW and History

I’m not committing to daily posts against racism, despite it being Blog Against Racism Week, but this post from the current History Carnival is one I find interesting, and not necessarily in a good way. Andrew Ross asks:

Do members of oppressed groups today have special access on the past of those groups? In other words, do gay people or Black people, have a special claim to an understanding of the gay or Black past?

And answers:

yeah, I’m afraid so.

This is one of those times I’m glad I study what I do. There was a time when most of the secondary material in my field was written in a way that both claimed and helped to reinforce this idea of special insight (thank you, Ranke, et al.). I’m honestly not sure if it’s as true in the historiography of England or Western Francia/France, but pretty much everything I’ve read on Eastern Francia written before 1950 (and a good bit of stuff written afterwards by people trained before WWII) relies on circular arguments that rely pretty much on a “but of course it was that way because we Germans are like that and they were like that too!” argument. For me, this often means that the secondary sources contain really good information wrapped in analysis that only a fool would accept at face value. (Still … German MSS editing! = no paleography!)

But apart from crazed German nationalist historians, it’s pretty easy to be a medievalist — and I think it’s easier the earlier one goes. OK, yeah, we’ve got to do the languages and the funny writing (sometimes) and we have to use a much broader range of relatively fewer sources … but we really are in ‘the past is a different country’ land. We don’t have to worry about identifying with the people we study in the way Ross discusses. We try to understand them and make them more understandable to others, but that’s different. Because Ross is wrong about this. In fact, I would argue that what he sees as being better insight is just a faster way to bad history. We don’t have to try to make what we do “meaningful for the 21st c.”, because we know it’s just meaningful, period.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. 19 July, 2006 5:22 pm

    I would never deny that you point to a real danger. And in fact point out one of the challenges of justifying the type of history I do: that gay or Black historians are too involved. But I’m more concerned over what I see as a false comparison between medieval history and the history of sexuality or Black history. That there’s a world of difference between doing the history of Eastern Francia and “gay” people. And not only because one is broader than the other, but, generally speaking, one doesn’t have to deal with the institutional and historical effects of oppression and the other does. And when I said “meaningful for the 21st c.” I meant to imply that the history of oppressed groups should work to undo that very oppression. Certainly that’s a different kind of meaning than other types of history?

  2. 19 July, 2006 5:58 pm

    Why on earth do you think there’s a false comparison between medieval history and the history of sexuality? First off, you clearly have no idea what it is that actual historians do. Do you imagine that, because I research things about Eastern Francia, or Rome in the 3rd c., that my research is particularly broad — or narrow? It’s as broad or as narrow as the sources dictate — and it is the sources that dictate what we as historians know. So I can re-create kinship networks and look at one family, or I can look to see what landholding patterns say about the economic power of women, for example. Second, er … have you ever taken a class in pre-modern history?? Plenty of oppression, institutionalized and otherwise. The Great Persecution? Mainz in 1096? We just deal with it in context and objectively, and not as the be all and end all of our work. Finally, if you walk in with an agenda, and that is what you are talking about doing, you are not doing history. You are using history. That’s fine for sociologists and political scientists and members of governments, I suppose — but in an historian, it’s letting down the side. Let’s see — maybe it’s a good idea to look at the history of the current situation in the Middle East. Look! it’s the history of oppression all round. Which part of that oppression do you suggest the historian is justified in undoing? Fixing the world’s wrongs is not the job of the historian. Creating narratives that help others to understand the past and, if they choose, to make what they will of it critically and thoughtfully, is. But to answer your final question: no, they are not different types of history. What you are talking about is not history — or at least does not exemplify the best of the historian’s craft. And to say it is makes it much harder for those of us who are constantly fighting to show that not only is history important, but that good historians are not just tools of the Great Liberal Academic Conspiracy.

  3. 19 July, 2006 8:07 pm

    And when I said “meaningful for the 21st c.” I meant to imply that the history of oppressed groups should work to undo that very oppression. Certainly that’s a different kind of meaning than other types of history? Hmm – lots of those wacky Germans ADM refer to spent a lot of time constructing a history of Germanness that dissolved the oppressions of wicked Romans and wicked papists toward innocent Germans, which liberated Germans oppressed by their minority positions in Slavic territories by revealing that they, the Germans, had been there first, and otherwise doing history in a pretty engaged way.That’s part of why some post-1950 historians of things older-than-the-word-“gay” have problems with the model of history as solver of past problems.Michael I hate commenting on blogger sites! I can never remember my blogger log in!)

  4. 20 July, 2006 4:04 am

    I acknowledge that people are going to use history for many reasons, and I’m sympathetic to those who want to use it to dismantle the oppressions of the past, but I agree with those who argue that going into one’s work with that agenda is not the same as doing history. Now, I’m not going to argue that it necessarily hurts the history that one does, partly because I tend to think that all historians have some unconscious agendas, if only those that drive us to choose the questions that we research, and so while some people want to dismantle systems of oppression, others want to explore family relationships, etc. etc. But it’s like a quote that’s from a Geertz piece somewhere, that says something along the lines of, Just because we can never achieve a perfectly sterile environment, doesn’t mean we should perform surgery in a sewer. – so I do think it’s important to try approach our subjects objectively.Actually, though, I have a lot less problem with the idea of making use of history for contemporary purposes than I do with the idea that you have to be a member of a particular group to understand that group’s history. I guess it’s largely because, to use an absurd analogy, I will never be able to be a medieval person. Does that mean I shouldn’t research them? I do think that our own social contexts – which groups we belong to, whether privileged or oppressed or some of both – influence the way that we study what we study, sure. So someone who is gay or African-American is likely to produce a different perspective on the past than I am. But I am very uncomfortable privileging that perspective as special access to the past. (The only place where I might privilege such a perspective is in dealing with events within the researcher’s lifetime, but if you’re studying events within your lifetime, I don’t think you’re a historian – you’re a sociologist or something else. But that may be the medievalist in me speaking.) It’s not because it’s sour grapes on my part – it’s because I think it runs the risk of racializing knowledge, and reinforcing perceived differences between races/genders etc. (Now, if you want to argue that it would be hard to get a job as a white person studying African-American history, that I would agree with. But I don’t think it *should* be so; I’d rather see a white person teaching Af-Am history than no one teach it.)Sorry, I think I’m rambling…!

  5. 20 July, 2006 4:20 pm

    This is an interesting discussion and I agree with ADM and NK that as medievalists we’re all coming at it from a similar distance. Unfortunately, there are still people who want “limit access” to certain topics, issues, etc. in the Middle Ages (I say this as a literature scholar, not as an historian – maybe it’s similar?). For example, in graduate school I wanted to do a project on Lollard anti-semitism – someone commented tartly that I’m not Jewish so the project wouldn’t be well done. Later, one of my husband’s profs (different dept – social sciences), a nice old Englishman chuckled when he heard that I, as an American, study British medieval literature. He said, “that’s kind of like the Swiss Navy, eh?” He didn’t mean it in a nasty way, but it underscored the sense of patronizing that I sometimes feel from some British medievalists.Just my two cents!

  6. 20 July, 2006 4:35 pm

    No, I think that’s true. And it’s clearly a fallacy. Drives me crazy!

  7. 21 July, 2006 12:03 am

    This is part of my problem in teaching western civ classes where I’m expected to cover TODAY. I don’t know if it’s the medievalist in me or the part of me with strong beliefs about current events who cannot stand confrontation, but by the time 1945 rolls around I struggle to continue. I was born in the 70’s–the material becomes too personal–my life, my parents’ lives.

  8. 21 July, 2006 12:53 am

    I think Henry Louis Gates responds to this line of thinking by asking whether only white folks can study Shakespeare…the reply is a bit facile, but I think it gets at something important.

  9. 21 July, 2006 2:03 am

    Welcome, AI! And a very useful quote it is, too!Deeni — some of us would have no problem agreeing that that’s current events!

  10. 21 July, 2006 2:37 pm

    “Henry Louis Gates responds to this line of thinking by asking whether only white folks can study Shakespeare…the reply is a bit facile, but ..”. Facile? It’s a one-line demolition!

  11. 21 July, 2006 3:11 pm

    “if you walk in with an agenda, and that is what you are talking about doing, you are not doing history.”wait wait wait….who doesn’t have an agenda? I mean that honestly…do you really think it’s possible not to have some kind of predisposition toward the material? this is slightly tangential to the general thread of discussion here, but I think signficant.

  12. 21 July, 2006 5:03 pm

    Anastasia, I think that it’s possible — I suppose you could say that wanting to answer a specific question and hoping the material supports your theory is an agenda, but it you know you’re going to follow the sources rather than dictate to them, you’re pretty safe. But more specifically, I meant a politial or ideological agenda, such as Andrew Ross mentioned, like ‘undoing opression’.

  13. 21 July, 2006 8:59 pm

    I guess that part of my problem with historians as Super Heroes Against Oppression is that the only lesson *I* think history teaches is the lesson of Unintended Consequences. Michael Tinkler

  14. 22 July, 2006 4:14 am

    Political agendas to one side, this line of argument is exasperating because it confuses belonging to a particular group with knowing something about that group. I’m Jewish, but if you asked me a detailed question about the Babylonian Talmud, there would be…difficulties. On the other hand, I’m far better acquainted than most Christians I know with the ins-and-outs of Victorian evangelicalism. Even the “alternative perspective” may not be an alternative perspective that has much to do with substantive knowledge. It’s also the case that saying “I belong to group X” is often far less helpful than it appears. “I am Jewish” tells you something, but “I was raised in a combination of Reformed and Reconstructionist traditions” tells you rather more (including, among other things, that I don’t have much in common with my cousins the Lubavitchers!).

  15. 22 July, 2006 6:30 am

    ADM, I agree with AIR, at his site, that this comment by you, “First off, you clearly have no idea what it is that actual historians do.” is over the top. He may or may not understand all about what you as a medievalist do, but he’s a graduate student in history at a major research institution, he’s well read, and etc., so he’s got at least some idea of what “actual historians do.” You were a bit too brisk with him, I’d say.

  16. 22 July, 2006 1:14 pm

    Yes, the problem with commenting software is that one can’t edit — it was meant to say, “medieval historians.”

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